Celebrate Music Education Month

Self-expression is more important than ever, which is one reason why giving kids an education in the arts means so much. As parents, my wife and I have regularly donated to our children’s school to keep music (as well as other arts) being taught to all the kids so they can sing, play instruments, and just have fun doing more than just fiddle with an iPod. Music benefits children’s minds in so many ways, including the improvement of their math skills as well as their communication abilities. March is Music in Our Schools Month (spearheaded by the Nation Association for Music Education). For just a sample of what teaching music to children can accomplish, watch this video of kids from the Manassus, Virginia school system – http://vimeo.com/60742475.

Posted in Child Development, Education, Family Music, Music, School | Leave a comment

A New Hope

By Gregory Keer

When it comes to donating money, I want to be impressive. Every December, when I send most of my biggest donations during the season of giving, I gather my children around and show them the websites and brochures of all the organizations I choose to support. In this way, they see what I value in the world and, hopefully, they think I’m a pretty nifty guy for sharing with those in need.

Sometimes, though, the philanthropic gestures of the dude they see eating potato chips in their living room at night is not impactful enough to truly teach how powerful giving to others can be.

Which is why, this year, I called upon the example of a hero my children and I have in common – the Star Wars navigator himself, George Lucas. This is a guy my kids relate to because he has entertained them with light-saber-bearing protagonists, wild alien creatures, and lots of swashbuckling space adventure.

So when I told them he is giving the entire $4.05 billion dollars from his sale of Lucasfilm to an educational charity, they were suitably impressed. Just think about what this says to the countless people influenced by the righteous rebelliousness of Luke Skywalker, the elegant leadership of Princess Leia, the daring bravado of Han Solo, and the Zen-like teaching of Yoda.

Lucas has dealt a serious blow to the dark forces Darth Vader represents by demonstrating that some people who hold great power really do want to heal the world. Already committed to education innovation via his Edutopia company that researches and promotes learning strategies, Lucas makes an even bigger statement about his belief that education must be a priority.

“I feel honored that he cares about kids even though they’re not his children,” my 11-year-old, Jacob, said. “He cares about how kids are going to be in the future.”

Through his donation, Lucas follows the Chinese proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Although my wife and I have yet to find ourselves with a multi-billion dollar windfall to play around with, we do put a lot of thought into our philanthropic approach. Last December, as we gathered our sons around the table to select charities we wanted to emphasize, my kids were most taken with Save the Children. Not only did my boys like the idea of giving to other kids, they loved the catalogue that equated certain donation amounts with funding classrooms, buying goats and sheep, purchasing medicine, and making micro-loans for small businesses. These options helped my boys see the direct impact on families in America and throughout the world. So, instead of giving money, which often seems intangible to my kids despite all our best efforts to explain the value of it, my children gave animals that provided dairy products for a family and books for a village library.

During the year, my sons wondered how the recipients were doing with the animals and books. We discussed how the children would learn to milk the goat and sheep we bought for them. We imagined them laughing and being caught up in the adventure of the stories we made possible for them to read. The children we donated to were not “those poor people in underprivileged areas” — they were kids like our sons who got some important stuff because we shared with them.

While my sons and I can’t donate billions like George Lucas, we are inspired to continue giving to children so that they have a brighter future. This year, we’ll once again select gifts that will educate and sustain young people in need. In this way, we hope to ensure there’s more than “a new hope” ahead.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Education, Ethics, School, Social Action, Values | 1 Comment

The Tortoise Wins the Race

By Gregory Keer

TortoiseHareimages (1)At my son’s middle-school graduation, my wife and I performed our finest rugby moves to fight for seats with 2,000 other attendees. We were there to see our child walk across the stage in his suit, a little small on him but still dapper, and smile for the cameras we told him would be somewhere in the sea of smiling faces. After two hours of waiting, we saw him up there for an instant, a fleeting moment of culmination after three years of homework battles, shifting friendship circles, and adolescent changes that felt like alien transformation scenes.

During the ceremony, a few graduates gave entertaining speeches and administrators provided some touching words before reading an endless parade of 600 student names. Aside from the proud chatter of the families in the audience, people whispered one sad fact of the day – almost 200 kids could not participate in the proceedings because of academic issues.

How is it that 25% of this public-school 8th grade class did not pass muster? My thoughts ran the gamut for reasons, including lack of parental or teacher attention, student learning or behavioral challenges, and the intervention of trouble-making gremlins who force children to play video games instead of going to class.

Then I remembered that, 28 years ago, only half of my own high-school class graduated on time.

It makes me nuts that there exists such a long-standing tradition of kids not finishing school. I have lots of ideas of how to improve the state of education, from smaller class sizes to more creative educational methods. I know this takes a lot of money, but I believe good education pays amazing returns for the society and its economy.

I’m such a big believer in education that I became a teacher. I did it because I love learning and wanted to share it with students. I also did it because I wanted to learn ways to guide my own children toward academic success.

For all of my first-hand knowledge about teaching, the most important lesson is that those students who work really hard get results that include graduation, but go far beyond that. Sure, we teachers take pride in those who come up with high scores and brilliant ideas, but not all of those students have to labor for terrific results and, sometimes, those same kids leave a lot of potential untapped.

What really impacts educators are students who slog away, who may not get an “A” or “B” every time out, but who never stop fighting through difficult or – dare I say it? – boring material. These kids come to class on time, participate, show up at office hours, meet homework deadlines, and ask questions. Teachers recognize effort and want to help the kids who appear to want it the most. All of this adds up to students who know that hard work leads to better understanding of the material and a lifelong sense of what it takes to succeed in the years ahead.

During my son’s last year of middle school, he often wanted to get through his work as fast as possible. Sometimes, hastiness had no ill effect. But often, as in the case of assignments that required more detail but not necessarily more cognitive challenge, he lost steam and his grades fell. He regularly got less than excellent comments on his work habits, which, of course, drove me crazy. In the meantime, other students for whom great grades did not come easily, kept at it, tortoise style, and the outcomes were much better.

So, after a lot of errors on my part to motivate him, I focused on the value of effort. I told him I didn’t care about the grade as long as he pushed himself through the process with greater care. For the most part, this worked and – not surprisingly – things improved. Sure, I was happy to see the nice letter grades on the final report card, but what really had me beaming with pride were the work habit marks of “excellent.”

As Benjamin begins high school, where grades and achievement are ever more important, I must continue to stress the value of effort above all else. I think it will help my son arrive on time at graduation day, but I also believe it will work for more of those kids who may somehow give up – or be given up on by others – before they reach culmination.

If I have any advice for parents as we all embark on new school years, it is this – find your own ways to reinforce the goal of getting E’s for effort. Real effort that sometimes causes frustration, tears, and arguments are worth the price. We all benefit from it in the end.

Posted in Adolescence, Columns by Family Man, Education, School | Leave a comment

What Dads Need to Know – Prep for Preschool

By Michelle Nitka, Psy.D.

Preschool-images (1)Never mind college. How do you get your kids into preschool?  In many cities, choosing a preschool, and being chosen, has come to feel like a competitive sport. Several articles and news shows have fanned the flames of parental panic. Nightline aired a segment entitled “Inside the Cutthroat Preschool Wars”, the San Francisco Chronicle headlined with “Preschool Wait Puts Parents In Panic” andThe New York Times ran an article entitled “In Baby Boomlet, Preschool Derby Is the Fiercest Yet.” Even without articles and news shows like these, the process of applying to preschool  is enough to push parents of hearty constitutions to the edge.

But it does not have to be this way. Despite what some overachieving parents think, admission to the “right” preschool will not set your child on the road to Harvard. What is vastly more important is to finding the preschool that fits your child and your family. Given that the preschool search often begins when a child is not even a year old many parents may well ask, “How do I know who he is yet?  He can scarcely eat without drooling!”  It is important therefore to pay attention not only to your child’s needs but also to your own. The following tips will hopefully start you in the right direction.


1)  Do you want your child in a half-day program or a full-day program? How much flexibility do you need in terms of number of days your child is in school and hours your child is in school?

2) How far do you want to drive? There are many outstanding preschool programs, and unless you have a pathological desire to listen to Barney or Elmo during long car rides, the closer the better.

3) How much do you want to spend on preschool? Don’t forget hidden costs like the annual fund drive, capital campaigns, endowment funds, galas, etc. They all have different names but add up to the same thing – you are writing checks which can add thousands of dollars to your tuition.

4) What is the educational philosophy you are most comfortable with (remembering of course that you are looking for the best fit for your child)? There are lots of choices out there, including but not limited to traditional academic, developmental, cooperative, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, and Waldorf.

5) Would you consider sending your child to a preschool affiliated with a church or a temple? Remember that just because a preschool is affiliated with a religious institution does not necessary mean it is a religious preschool. If you are interested in a preschool affiliated with a church or temple, joining the congregation can give you an advantage in the admissions process.

6) Is diversity important to you, and if so, what kind of diversity is important to you?  Some schools are founded on the idea of having a diverse student body, while others are extremely homogeneous.

7) Does your child have any special needs that might affect whether a preschool is a good fit? Some preschool directors are exceptional at working with and including children with special needs, while others seem to regard it as a burden.

8) How much parent participation do you want to see in the preschool? What are the opportunities for parent involvement, and what are the expectations? There are some preschools, for example cooperative nursery schools, that by definition require a good deal of parent participation. If you have a very inflexible work schedule this may not be a good choice. On the other hand for a parent who has quit their job to be involved in their child’s early education, a school with little to no parent involvement might be quite frustrating.

9) What is the school’s policy on toilet training? Some preschools have a very strict requirement that a child must be toilet trained to start preschool while others are far more lenient and realize that peer modeling will probably accomplish the task rather rapidly.

10)  After preschool do you plan to send your child to public or private school? There are some preschools where everyone will graduate and attend private elementary schools. Those directors typically help their families with this application process and are very well versed in it. On the other hand, there are many excellent preschools where no one continues on to private school.

11)  Apply to the toddler program of the preschool you are interested in. Many preschools have toddler programs that start when the child is about 18 months old. Toddler programs generally meet once a week and the parent stays with the child. These programs are an excellent way of getting to know a preschool program. Although it is not a guarantee, many preschools acknowledge that attending their toddler program does afford the child an advantage in terms of admission to the  preschool.

Finally, try to remember that although these first decisions regarding your child’s education are important, no preschool can ever replace you. There are no golden tickets – no preschool will guarantee success. It is far more important to be a loving, involved, present parent.

Michelle Nitka is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in children and families. She is the author of the book Coping With Preschool Panic and maintains a private practice in West Los Angeles. She is also the mother of two small children and has survived the preschool application process twice. Her Web site is PreschoolGuide.com and she can be reached at mnitka@preschoolguide.com.

Posted in Child Development, Education, Featured Moms & Dads, School | 1 Comment

Ellis Paul – The Hero in You

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

The music of folk singer-songwriter Ellis Paul is frequently in our lives, especially because, whenever my family hops in the car for highway journeys, my youngest requests “Road Trip” from the 2008 The Dragonfly Races album. Although I love that tune, it was time for some new Paul music, which is why The Hero in You is such an appreciated addition to our vehicular playlist.

On this new recording, Paul digs deep into America’s past to enlighten children about some of our nation’s greatest contributors to culture, civil rights, science, and lots more. Paul’s full-bodied vocals and poetic turns of phrase warm up the often cold, hard facts of history in person-titled tunes about intrepid female journalist “Nellie Bly,” African-American ice cream innovator “Augustus Jackson,” Native American icon “Chief Joseph,” baseball color-barrier breaker “Jackie Robinson,” and late-blooming painter “Georgia O’Keefe,” among others. While most of the music rides the folk-sound train, the New England based performer varies things up with a spoken-word detour for “Thomas Edison” (about the prolific inventor) and a smooth hip-hop rap on “Martha Graham” (celebrating the brilliant choreographer).

All this singing of U.S. heroes’ praises comes from Paul’s feeling that our country needs to take more pride in its unique leaders. At the same time, Paul – who pays homage to one of his musical inspirations on “Woody Guthrie, Working May” – tells his young listeners that each of us is capable of great things, as suggested by the title track.

Pair this album with The Deedle Deedle Dees’ equally educational Strange Dees, Indeed. and your car stereo will turn into quite the rolling edu-tainment system.

www.ellispaul.com – $15 (CD) – Ages 2 to 11

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The Deedle Deedle Dees – Strange Dees, Indeed.

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

Calling themselves “America’s Ultimate Teaching Band” only tells part of the story, but it’s a pretty big chunk of what makes The Deedle Deedle Dees a revelation of a band. These tenaciously talented Dees have a new album that is offbeat, a little strange, and super smart — a combination that is surprisingly effective. It’s a little like They Might Be Giants for an older crowd of kids.

The disc has 19 songs, each of which touches on such topics as historical figures, philosophical concepts, and folkloric tales. Sirius/XM’s Kids Place Live currently has the opening track of “Ah Ahimsa” playing frequently, largely because of its exotic sound and message about nonviolence (with references to Gandhi). “The Golem” uses klezmer-style strains along with its explanation of the mystical creature created to save the Jewish people from harm in 16th century Prague. Employing a late-‘70s rock sound (a bit of Joe Jackson and Queen), “Sacagawea” offers details of the Lewis and Clark guide from the grateful perspective of William Clark.

The Brooklyn-based band consists of leader/songwriter Lloyd Miller (who goes by Ulysses S. Dee), mandolin/guitar player Ari Dolegowski (Moby Dee), multi-instrumentalist (largely keyboards) Chris Johnson (Booker Dee), and percussionist Ely Levin (Otto von Dee). With the direction of producer Dean Jones (of Dog on Fleas), this recording is as musically potent and assured as it is educationally engaging. More highlights of the project range from the soaring story-song of African American pioneer “Sojourner Truth” to the quirky “Birds of America Don’t Care-Oh,” which offers a view that birds might have of the portraits Audubon painted. Two tracks also worth noting take on New York history: “Mayor LaGuardia’s Stomach” (about Moby Dee’s grandmother bumping into the legendary politician of NYC) and “Henry (Hudson), How Ya Gonna Find a Way? (which mixes history about the 17th century explorer and the tale of “Rip Van Winkle”).

Because the lyrics offers so much enlightenment, it’s well worth calling up the group’s Web pages explaining the content of the songs’ words (http://teachddd.blogspot.com). There are even reading recommendations for adults. Strange Dees. Indeed. is an endlessly entertaining and instructive package of music. It makes the top 5 of my picks for 2011.

www.thedeedledeedledees.com and http://teachddd.blogspot.com – $10 (CD) – Ages 4 to 11

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Reaction to “Beyond the Lesson Plan”

My friend Adam Turteltaub, one of the best dads and human beings I know, had this reflection in response to the column about the need for teachers to go “Beyond the Lesson Plan.”

Adam explains, “My least favorite teacher was my art teacher. He was famous for his long, grey hair and even longer, grey beard at a time when all teachers wore their hair short. He would give long lectures on the environment or whatever else he felt like. One day, bored out of my mind, I was absent-mindedly clicking open and closed my watercolor tin, and he pointed at me and announced to the class, “It’s idiots like this that make it impossible for me to teach.” It was way out of line, and after class, I asked him if he just called me an idiot in front of the class, to which he replied, “If the shoe fits, put it on.” Idiotic on his part.

“I told my parents who told the school, and the art teacher never looked me in the eye again.

“I related that story to a group of old elementary school friends on Facebook. It was fascinating to see the responses. Some, who had talent, were lavish in their praise of him and what he did for them. Others, who  were untalented like me, were scathing. It made me think that a truly good teacher is one, like your Dr. Kleinz, who was as good for the good students as he was for the bad ones.”

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Beyond the Lesson Plan

By Gregory Keer

Ten years ago, I became a full-time high school teacher. With visions of Stand and Deliver dancing in my head, I wanted to put my real-world experience into lessons and my bad jokes into dull moments. Plus I relished learning what made teenagers tick to prepare me for my road ahead as a father.

Over the past decade, I’ve held onto the joy of teaching though it frequently makes my brain hurt and my ego crack. It ain’t easy to find the balance between the enthusiastic learners and the ones who would rather blog about toenail clipping. So, through trial and tribulation, I’ve developed methods to keep students’ attention, push them past their boundaries, and encourage them to explore their interests.

I don’t pretend to be one of the world’s greatest teachers. I’ve had those in my life, as instructors of my own and as colleagues. In 10th grade, there was Dr. Kleinz, who was nerdy, overly educated, and sweated profusely through his dress shirts. But he was funny, hip, and a good listener. Even the students with the biggest attitudes and smallest self-expectations labored hard for Dr. Kleinz. As for me, I struggled for a decent grade in his Western Civ class — and loved every minute of it.

Among my three kids, and their combined 13 years of public school, the vast majority of their teachers have been creative, effective, and inspiring. Then, there are the two who have somehow missed their calling as medieval prison guards.

A few years ago, Jacob’s instructor was intolerant of students who were not quiet drones. She gave the kids worksheets, without instruction on how to do them, for most of their day. She readily showed frustration for fidgety children and put absolutely no comments – not so much as a Happy Face sticker – on the students’ papers. And this was in first grade.

My son is energetic to say the least, but he has always been eager to please. So, when he asked for help, he was crushed by the teacher’s response to stop asking so many questions.

We tried emailing and conversing with her, but got little response. So like a number of other parents in the class who had similar worries about the instructor, we met with the principal. Sympathetic to our concerns, he went in to observe the way the teacher taught, helped her post her bare classroom walls with the work of students (to pump up their pride),  and guided her on lesson plans and techniques to channel kid energy into productivity.

As a result, the academic environment did improve. Although the teacher’s personal coldness didn’t thaw much, the partnership with the school administration made a difference.

This past year, my eldest boy endured a sub-par seventh-grade English class in which he seldom had homework, read only two books, and rarely received feedback on his work. While she did deliver some stretches of beneficial instruction, she missed weeks for meetings and field trips she went on with other classes while subs did little more than babysitting.

It’s not that Benjamin ever fretted. He got good grades for little effort and seemed well liked by the instructor. At the slightest hint that we might voice to the school our unhappiness with the rigor of his class, Benjamin feared backlash should the teacher think he was ratting her out.

Understanding this, we focused our efforts on gentle emails about assignments to the teacher and behind-the-scenes inquiries with the administration. We were stonewalled everywhere we turned despite the fact that, as we gathered from speaking to past years’ parents, this teacher had a history of doing her job on autopilot.

This time, we backed off, partly because our son still read a fair amount on his own and partly because we wanted to teach him a different kind of lesson. No matter what Wendy and I privately worked on to improve the classroom situation, we publicly told our son to work hard and figure out the best way to meet the teacher’s expectations. We never wanted Benjamin — or Jacob in the earlier case — to feel entitled to blame these or any teachers for their own shortcomings. In the future, it’s likely our kids will have other difficult instructors (and bosses, eventually), so our boys need to know how to navigate those murky waters.

Thankfully, my children’s other teachers have been stellar. Our hope is that the new school term will also be led by involved, caring educators who like kids and enjoy what they teach. Most of the time, despite the continuing budget assault on education, we are blessed by instructors who go above and beyond basic lessons to make learning a joyful experience.

So, here’s to all the teachers, even the ones who remind us of how hard it is to be good.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Education, Teens | 1 Comment

Vanessa Van Petten on Assisting Kids With Homework

Vanessa Van Petten, the ground-breaking writer and publisher of RadicalParenting.com, focuses on assisting parents in raising teenagers. Her approach is to offer moms and dads windows into the teenage mind by posting articles based on her experience researching adolescents but also providing articles written by teens that directly speak to what they want parents to know. For this month’s back-to-school theme, here is one of Vanessa’s most useful pieces on How Parents Can (Successfully) Help Kids With Homework.

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Let Teachers Teach

As I prepare for a new year of teaching high school, I came across this. Absolutely Mindy (the funny and insightful DJ for Kids Place Live on Sirius XM Radio) pointed out an excellent article on how we can help our teachers improve education — let them teach! In our rush for quick fixes to education, we’ve focused on testing results. As a byproduct, our kids have a lot of information but little knowledge of what to do with it. And teachers, hemmed in by the drive for exam scores, are left with little room to employ lessons that take children to deeper levels of learning. I’m certainly not saying that all the answers are in this article or that I personally have all the solutions, but this piece is a very good start to the conversation on how we can help our teachers be inspired to inspire our kids.

What are your ideas for making U.S. education great again?

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